By Cynthia Richie Terrell on November 24, 2016
By Ruth Hardy
In this post-election world where a highly qualified woman lost the presidency to a misogynist bully, and women failed to make meaningful gains nationally in the long quest for gender parity among elected officials, our elected leaders in “progressive Vermont” have much work to do to prove that women in politics in our state are valued as equals.
After all, yet another highly qualified woman lost the governor’s race and only one woman currently holds elected statewide office. While our state Legislature is one of the most gender-balanced in the nation, we have yet to reach gender parity in either chamber.
According to Representation 2020, Vermont ranks 35th out of the 50 states for gender parity among elected officials. Our shockingly low ranking is due to a poor showing for women at the local and statewide levels. Only one mayor and just over 20 percent of our selectboard members are women, and we’re one of only two states to have never elected a woman to the U.S. Congress (our partner in this dubious position is Mississippi).
So, while it may be incumbent on women in office to encourage others to follow their path and for organizations like Emerge Vermont to prepare women for the task of running, it’s perhaps more crucial for the men who have won elections to proactively work for gender equity in Vermont politics.
Some have already called on Gov.-elect Phil Scott to “make sure women are more than 50% of his administration,” a pledge enacted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and promised by U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Promisingly, Scott has appointed two women to head up his Transition Leadership Advisory Committee – Laura Sibilia and Debbie Winters – but thus far Scott’s other appointments have all been men.*
In our heavily Democratic Legislature, I was dismayed to read that our increasingly gender-balanced (now 37 percent women) and progressive state Senate failed to elect a woman to either its top leadership post or the crucial Committee on Committees. Just months ago, several women were considering the idea of running for pro tempore, but in the end, only Sen. Claire Ayer stuck with it, only to pull her name at the last minute due to lack of support.
Men have to deliver on promises of equality by championing women leaders, mentoring female successors, and moving aside to make room for women at the head of the table – by grabbing hammers themselves and pounding on that glass ceiling.
Ayer made a valiant attempt at a seat on the powerful Committee on Committees, only to be blocked by the long-serving “third member” whose 20 years in that spot should surely be questioned, especially in light of the fact that he failed to support his own party’s nominee for governor (who just happened to be a woman). The vote was 14-8, in favor of Sen. Mazza, and it is perhaps only coincidental that there were eight women senators present for the secret-ballot vote.
In her quest for the position, Ayer made the argument that “we need diversity” of gender and geography among Senate leaders. In fact, research shows that diverse bodies make better decisions, so the majority of our senators actually voted against gender equity and sound decision-making practices. Further, in this era of “how do we keep millennials in Vermont,” the Senate missed a chance to signal to a generation that supports diversity and empowerment of “marginalized” voices, that they are serious about inclusive leadership and government.
Sen. Ayer contended that “Vermont knows no glass ceiling” because we voted for Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately for Sen. Ayer and women across our state, the Green Mountain glass ceiling appears thicker than ever.
Gender equality is a tenant of both democracy and progressivism, and also of Democrats and Progressives. However, for it to be a reality, it has to be more than a lofty ideal or a platform bullet point, it has to be enacted in both our laws and our halls of power.
For our state, dominated by male political leaders, this means men have to do more than talk the talk during their campaigns. Men have to deliver on promises of equality by championing women leaders, mentoring female successors, and moving aside to make room for women at the head of the table – by grabbing hammers themselves and pounding on that glass ceiling.
I hope Phil Scott, with his record of “working with everyone,” does indeed fill his administration with a diverse group of women from across the political spectrum. If he does, he may well surpass the gender-deaf actions of his brothers in the Senate (who do still have another chance to do right by the women in their chamber by electing a woman as majority leader).
I have faith that our members in the Vermont House will yet choose leaders to counter-balance the male dominance in the rest of state government leadership. Gender equality and women’s leadership could still sprout during this bleak political season. Shards of glass might still fall.
*Editor’s note: This commentary was written before Scott appointed his campaign coordinator Brittney Wilson as secretary of civil and military affairs and longtime aide Rachel Feldman as senior director of boards, commissions and public service.